Monday, March 9, 2015

Meeting a Living Legend

March 2, 2015 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

To the world, Ted DeGrazia was a gifted celebrity,
to the Indians of the Southwest, he was a friend.
However, to himself, he was simply a "working artist."
Ettore “Ted” DeGrazia died on September 17, 1982 in Tucson, Arizona. He was true aficionado of the mighty Superstition Mountains. At the time of DeGrazia’s death it was very difficult for me to write about him. I have always wanted to believe he was a true Western maverick; however his educational and business background emitted a somewhat different image.

Before I can honestly write about this it is important that I clarify my relationship with him. Ted had many people who just hung around him and I didn’t want to be classified as one of them. Therefore I kept my distance from him a majority of the time. DeGrazia and I had only one thing in common. We both were aficionados Superstition Mountain.

The first time I met Ted was in 1963. He was in Apache Junction to embark upon an expedition into the Superstition Wilderness Area. I don’t recall the exact circumstances of our first meeting. Either Slim Fogle or “Woody” Woodcock introduced me to him at First Water Trail Head. I was introduced as one of the cowboys that use to work for the Barkley Cattle Company.

DeGrazia at the time was interested in certain landmarks in the Superstitions. He chatted briefly with me about a couple of landmarks and various names they had. Old Slim Fogle usually packed DeGrazia into the region. On this particular day “Woody” Woodcock was doing the packing and guiding. DeGrazia was beginning to reach the apex of his art career in 1963, but was still relatively unknown. In our brief conversation I sensed his love for the area, however I felt he was promoting a stigma. You might say a self-guided stigma to associate with the wild and violent history of the region.  DeGrazia wanted to be stereotyped with the area and its violence. The “Old West” and its wild and wooly way was what DeGrazia was looking for.

Men and equipment had been assembled for this expedition and yet it did not appear the expedition was even going to get off the trailhead. Many of the participants were enjoying alcoholic beverages at the trailhead. After my brief conversation with DeGrazia I returned to my vehicle and watched the three-ring circus that was unfolding before my eyes. The DeGrazia entourage looked like a page out of Old West history with their pre-1900 costumes and ancient weapons.

Photographs were being taken, horses were jumping around, men were swearing and patience was running very thin among the participants. Adventure, excitement, guns and alcohol do not mix well. What appeared before me was a disaster waiting to happen. That was the first time I met Ted DeGrazia. It certainly made an impression on me.

Our trails crossed occasionally during the years 1963 through 1981. Ted had his associates and friends. I had mine. The rugged Superstition Mountains were the only common ground between DeGrazia and I. Ted did everything to promote the image of DeGrazia. He painted, sculptured, made films, wrote books and recorded records to keep the DeGrazia image alive and before the public. I was just another acquaintance, a distant face in a crowd of thousands. He would sometimes recognize me depending on who was around.

DeGrazia used his environment to promote his image before his adoring public. Early in the fall of 1980, I contacted DeGrazia at his Tucson Gallery because he had left a message for me to do so. I finally called him by telephone to find out what he wanted. He informed me he wanted to make a film about Celeste Marie Jones. He needed detailed information about Jones and wanted to know if I could meet him next time he was in Apache Junction. I agreed I would assist him the next time he was in the junction.

Ted arrived at the house on a Saturday afternoon and we spent the afternoon talking about Marie Jones. I provided him with several newspaper articles and other information. He was appreciative and also impressed with all the material I had collected on the Superstition Mountain region.

This meeting generated a close friendship that would last until the time of Ted’s death in 1982. I soon became an important link between DeGrazia and his beloved Superstition Mountain. We both had a strong feeling for the history and lore of Superstition Mountain and its legends. It is tragic our friendship did not develop fifteen years earlier.

Ted stopped by my house on several occasions to gather information for his docudrama about Marie Jones. He drove an old International Carry-All. On several occasions I worked on the truck’s carburetor so he could get it started and be on his way.

Ted could be totally uncouth with his adoring public. He was as likely to appear drunk and stinking like a pig at a public appearance as not. In 1976 I invited him to be a judge at the Superstition Legend Saga Art Show. He didn’t show, therefore embarrassing me. I never invited him again to such a function.
DeGrazia’s protest of the federal inheritance tax by burning some of his paintings and sketches at Angel Springs in the Superstition Wilderness Area created a lot of newspaper copy in 1977. He also allegedly buried several paintings in the area.

Ted was no fool he knew the value of good publicity. He also understood the proper timing of news releases. When Ted burned his paintings at Angel Springs I was convinced it was another one of his publicity stunts to gain further notoriety. I have never been convinced he buried any oil paintings of value in the Superstition Wilderness Area. I have two reasons for this belief. Ted was a very good business man and I doubt very much Billy Clark Crader would violate federal law and help Ted’s group bury paintings within the boundary of the Superstition Wilderness Area.

It was 1977 when Billy Crader invited me to ride into DeGrazia’s camp at what he called Angel Springs. Crader needed to haul supplies into Ted’s Camp and didn’t want to make the trip alone with a packhorse. At the last moment Cal Mensch decided to make the trip. Cal was one Crader’s drinking buddies and occasionally served as a wrangler or packer. Crader didn’t know for sure what to do about the invitation he had extended to me. He decided to go ahead and take me along because I was such a good customer of his. Since 1973, I had been renting horses from Crader’s outfit for my Junior High School science field trips.

As we rode in from the J.F. Ranch, Crader read a book and listened to his radio. I chatted with Cal.

“Hey Kollenborn,” Crader yelled, “We are going to have to blindfold you or old DeGrazia is going to be pissed.

“Why’s that?” I called out.

“He’s going to bury a bunch of paintings today so he can perpetuate the DeGrazia legend in the Superstition Mountains,” said Crader.

“I’m not riding any horse blindfolded through that Catclaw and brush. I will just remain outside of the camp,” I replied.

Crader said no more about the blindfold and I was glad of it.

Crader turned his radio off as we neared DeGrazia’s camp. The meadow was beautiful, in the distance you could see smoke lazily drifting upward and mingling with the tall sycamore trees in the canyon. The camp came to life as we rode in. David Jones and one of DeGrazia’s Native American friends were the first to great us.

“Where’s the booze?” One of them hollered.

The camp was filled with blood shot eyes and hangovers. Ted was sitting on a stool under a scrub oak tree, acknowledging our arrival with a nod. As Crader stepped off his horse, Mensch and Jones began unpacking the pack- horses. Crader was soon huddled and in conversation with DeGrazia and one of the older Native Americans in the group.

Laying on a large tarp I could see six to eight acrylic map tubes used by cartographers and architects to protect drawings or maps. I knew these map tubes were a significant part of this trip, but I had no clue as to what they were going to be used for at the time. Bare in mind I wasn’t aware of the plan to bury paintings or drawings around Angel Springs by DeGrazia and his friends prior to this ride. Crader had just mentioned the idea as we rode into camp.

As soon as I observed the map tubes and the various media people in the group I knew DeGrazia was up to something big in way of a media show. Maggie Wilson, Arizona Republic, Jim Butler, New York Times and some representative for People Magazine were waiting around for some action.

It wasn’t long before Crader was ready to ride out again. Cal Mensch stayed in camp as Crader and I departed. DeGrazia was a sly old fox. He loved to keep people guessing as to what he was going to do. He seldom denied or confirmed any of the tales that had been told about him. DeGrazia was a legend in the making and he continued adding chapters to that legend. 

An interesting fact about this trip was several days later I spotted those acrylic map tubes in Crader’s trailer at the corral unused. As I recall there were six at Angel Springs and there were six in Crader’s trailer. I recalled the tubes being numbered and so were the ones in Crader’s trailer. They had the exact numbers as those that lay in DeGrazia’s camp at Angel Springs.

Ted DeGrazia was a fantastic businessman and public relations individual. He learned how to get the public’s attention. We have to admire him for his tenacity and desire to succeed in the art world circus. 

DeGrazia was a premiere showman in the “world of art.”